The Himalayan country of Nepal is in the grip of another major political crisis, the second in three months, with the Maoists there withdrawing support to the anti-India and pro-China KP Sharma Oli-led coalition government. The Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Centre) joined hands with the Nepali Congress to table a no-trust motion against the Oli government.
The Oli government, reduced to a hopeless minority, has been trying various tricks to hold on to power. In the 598-member Parliament, the Nepali Congress has 207 seats, Oli’s Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist Leninist) or CPN (UML) has 181 seats, the CPN (MC) 83 seats and the Samyukta Loktantrik Madhesi Morcha (an alliance of Madhesi parties) 39 seats. Though the no-trust motion of 12 July bore the signatures of 254 members of the Nepali Parliament, many more are expected to vote against the Oli government.
The motion was scheduled to have come up for discussion and voting on Thursday (21 July), but due to sharp differences between CPN (UML) and other parties, it was put off till Friday. China is also leaning heavily on CPN (MC) leaders to continue supporting Oli as the Prime Minister. A high-level Chinese delegation currently in Nepal’s capital Kathmandu has been trying to shore up support for Oli.
China is said to be very keen on Oli remaining as Prime Minister, at least till thevisit of Chinese President Xi Jinping slated for October this year. China is hoping that if Oli is Prime Minister during Xi’s visits, many favourable deals can be signed with Nepal in order to cement China’s place as the foremost partner of Nepal, replacing India.
China is keen to promote its One Belt One Road project that will facilitate the entry of Chinese goods into Nepal in a big way and the setting up of Chinese enterprises in Nepal. China also wants to wean Nepal away from India and make it China’s close ally in furtherance of its sting of pearls policy aimed at containment of India.
Nepal’s ongoing political crisis has its roots in the similar crisis it faced in May this year. CPN (MC) Chairman Pushpa Kumar Dahal, popularly known as ‘Prachanda’ (his nom de guerre from the days of the Maoist insurgency in Nepal) on 4 May this year, threatened to withdraw support to the Oli government and join hands with the Nepali Congress to form a new government. Dahal had said he was very unhappy with the snail’s pace of post-earthquake reconstruction works and lack of progress on the Constitution amendment process and the resultant disquiet among the Madhesis and tribals. But Dahal’s real anger was that despite repeated assurances, the Oli government had failed to withdraw cases against Maoist cadres involved in the decade-long insurgency from 1996 that wracked Nepal and left 15,000 dead and uprooted an estimated one-and-a-half lakh people.
However, a crisis was averted that time mainly due to the efforts of CPN (UML) Vice Chairman Bam Dev Gautam, who shares close personal ties with the Maoists, having been Deputy Prime Minister during the Premiership of Dahal in 2008-09. Gautam harped on Left unity and hammered out a deal with the Maoists, which saved the Oli government.
China is also believed to have leaned very heavily on Prachanda to save Oli. Though the written agreement was about providing clemency to Maoist cadres, compensation to the injured and speeding up the Constitutional amendment process, the unwritten understanding was that Oli would step down as Prime Minister within two months of presenting the budget and support Dahal’s ascension to the post of Prime Minister.
But after the budget was presented on 28 May (Nepal’s financial year begins on 16 July), Oli started having second thoughts about stepping down. When it became apparent to Dahal that he would not be able to move in to Baluwatar (the official residence of Nepal’s Prime Minister), he re-opened negotiations with Nepali Congress President Sher Bahadur Deuba. Dahal was also very upset with Oli for not expediting the withdrawal of cases against Maoist cadres and reaching an understanding with the Madhesis and Janjatis (tribals) to accommodate their concerns and demands for amending the Constitution.
Also, the Oli government was drawing a lot of flak for the abysmal lack of progress in post-quake reconstruction works (read about it here in Swarajya) and Dahal, with his party being part of Oli’s coalition government, was keen to avoid receiving any more flak for Oli’s failings. Dahal was also cut up with Oli for not getting the Madhesis and Janjatis on board to amend the Constitution. The two groups, who make for 40 percent of Nepal’s population, are angry with the country’s new Constitution that came into effect in September 2015 and becamecontroversial due to many of its provisions, which were seen as discriminatory by Madhesis and Janjatis.
Oli’s attempt to address the concerns of the Madhesis and Janjatis was halfhearted at best and, though some of their demands have been incorporated in the draft amendments to the Constitution, crucial concerns have not been addressed. The Madhesis launched a prolonged blockade of Nepal’s transit and trade points with India along the Indo-Nepal border in September last year.
The blockade, which Nepal’s politicians led by Oli blamed India for, caused tremendous hardships in Nepal due to shortages of fuel, edibles, medicines and other goods and was lifted only in February this year. But the Madhesis are still unhappy and have threatened to launch another agitation if their primary demands are not met.
The blockade and the anti-Indian sentiments that Oli whipped up paved the way for China to increase its influence and footprints in Nepal. Oli even signed a few trade and transit deals with China during his visit to Beijing in March this year. These deals are aimed at reducing Nepal’s dependence on India. It is believed that a few more deals that are highly favourable for China are slated to be signed during Xi’s visit to Kathmandu later this year.
During and after the blockade, Oli has often spoken out against India in order to ingratiate himself with the Chinese. He blamed India for the crisis he faced in May and has done so again this time. A week ago (on 14 July), he made a thinly veiled reference to India during a national security seminar in Kathmandu:
Maintaining good relations with neighbouring countries is an important aspect of national security, but we cannot jeopardise national security for the sake of maintaining good neighbourly relations.
Oli also recalled Nepal’s ambassador to India, Deep Kumar Upadhyay (who was appointed by then Nepali Congress Prime Minister Sushil Koirala in early 2015) in May this year. Oli accused Upadhyay of being pro-Indian. Oli also cancelled Nepal President Bidhya Devi Bhandari’s maiden visit to India scheduled to begin on 9 May this year in an apparent snub to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who was keen to participate in the ‘shahi snan’ at the Simhasta Kumbha Mela at Ujjain on 14 May with the Nepali President.
Under the deal struck between Prachanda and the Nepali Congress, a new coalition government with Prachanda as the Prime Minister and the Madhesis included in it will replace the Oli government. Prachanda will be replaced by Nepali Congress President Sher Bahadur Deuba as Prime Minister after nine months.
Oli managed to stave off voting on the no trust motion on Thursday. Kathmandu was rife with stories of how the visiting Chinese saved the day for him and are working on Prachanda to reconsider his withdrawal of support to Oli, just as they had done in May this year. It remains now to be seen if the Chinese are successful in ensuring Oli’s continued occupation of Baluwatar or the forces of democracy prevail in Nepal.
Oli’s tenure as Prime Minister has been disastrous for Nepal and his replacement holds out immense hope for that country. Prachanda as Prime Minister is expected to be successful in addressing the concerns of the Madhesis and Janjatis and expedite the Constitutional amendment process. The international community (which pledged US$ 4.4 billion to Nepal in earthquake reconstruction works) had been dismayed by Oli’s non-performance in providing succour to the quake-affected and see in Prachanda a person who can inject the much-needed boost to reconstruction works. And Nepal’s ties with India, which suffered under Oli, are also expected to be revived under the CPN (MC)-Nepali Congress government.